Editorial: On tuition, a good start and a new idea
Gov. Maggie Hassan and the trustees of the state university system made a big show last month of their vote to freeze tuition at New Hampshire’s four-year colleges. It was the first year without a tuition increase in a quarter-century, part of a deal Hassan had been talking about since her election campaign last summer: The state would restore the dramatic funding cuts made during the previous budget cycle and, in return, the university system would hold the line on tuition.
Well, that’s a good start. And if voters are looking for a tangible result of last fall’s election, this would be one. Where the last Legislature turned the university system into a public enemy, this year’s crowd of lawmakers, with Hassan’s goading, restored most of the funding cuts as well as a rational attitude toward higher education.
But in a state with unusually high college tuition, no state scholarship aid and the highest student-debt load in the country, it’s only a start. For the University of New Hampshire, in-state tuition will remain at $13,670 in the fall. In-state tuitions at Plymouth State University and Keene State College will both stay at $10,410. Even with the freeze, those are big numbers.
Hassan and state university officials must continue to look for ways to make the cost of higher education less burdensome to New Hampshire students and families. Our advice to them: Look to Oregon.
Legislators there recently approved a provocative pilot project in which students at state colleges would neither be forced to pay a high tuition bill each semester nor required to take out traditional loans. Instead, they would agree to commit a small, fixed percentage of their future incomes to repaying the state. If they hit it big, they’d pay more than their fellow alumni; if their future salaries were small, so too would be their obligation to the state.
The Oregon plan – called “Pay it Forward, Pay it Back” – requires some state money to get rolling, but ultimately payments from former students would sustain it. Experts there estimate that in the case of graduates who earn a bachelor’s degree, the state would have to take about 3 percent of their pay for 20 years. Graduates of two-year programs would likely pay 1.5 percent.
Will this work? It’s been tried in Australia but, so far, not in the United States. In Oregon, once the pilot project is developed, lawmakers will vote again on whether to set it in motion, presumably starting in 2015. Chances are good that it will go forward: Initial votes in the state House and Senate there were unanimous.
High tuition and the enormous debt it creates for young adults is a particularly big problem in New Hampshire, but as the experiment out west underscores, it’s a national concern.
Meanwhile, just as Oregon lawmakers were voting on their big, new idea, lawmakers in Washington failed to pass legislation preventing an automatic rate increase on federally subsidized Stafford loans, which meant the loan rates have now doubled to 6.8 percent. Waiting for Congress to help make higher education more affordable is not a winning strategy. Creativity at the state level is a must.